SCUM OF THE MIRTH

Pulp Fiction is rubbish about scum. The plot is a tangled mess of collisions between hit men, drug dealers, crooked boxers, murderous junkies, perverted security guards and the like. The script is packed full of ferocious violence and sadism, and even more full of savage racial and sexual invective. It all adds up to nothing, and that's exactly the sum that writer-director Quentin Tarantino had in mind.

It's also very funny and entertaining. Tarantino, the young ex-video clerk from Detroit turned Hollywood flavor of the month, has been getting voluminous press lately, and it's probably about time that somebody got a backlash going against him. But I'm not going to be the one. Anybody who so exuberantly flouts both conventional good taste and political correctness is worth having around.

He does for crime movies something like what Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor did for standup comedy--dares you to laugh and dares you not to.

Tarantino's movies don't fool me for one minute into the belief that they're remotely great as cinema, but they do make me laugh. And Reservoir Dogs, at least, will likely prove to be one of this odd decade's seminal American films. If Pulp Fiction doesn't attain quite the same level of splenetic comedy, it compensates by having more variety, less dramatic claustrophobia. Pulp Fiction intertwines three plot lines set in the scuzzy underworld of contemporary L.A. In part one, a gang lord (Ving Rhames) assigns one of his hired guns, a flabby junkie named Vincent (John Travolta), to "baby-sit" his attractive young wife (Uma Thurman) while he's away on business. Of course, the two are immediately attracted to each other, but before anything can develop, the date takes a horrifying twist. In part two, a boxer (Bruce Willis) who has agreed to throw a fight fails to do so in an attempt to cheat that same gang lord. But the boxer's flight from L.A. is fouled up when his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros) neglects to bring his gold watch--the only souvenir of his POW father--from his apartment. Knowing full well that the gangster's goons will be waiting for him, he goes back for it, anyway. Part three backtracks in time, and centers again on Vincent and his partner, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), who have missed being killed during a job by what appears to be an act of providence. Jules believes it to be a divine message to give up his line of work.

After a gruesomely comic interlude in which the two men hide a murder victim in the suburban home of Jules' outraged friend (played by Tarantino himself), the film closes with a framing episode involving two petty robbers (Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer) who, weary of convenience stores, decide to stick up a restaurant.

As a director, Tarantino is competent, but nothing special. He has little interest in visual composition, and only a little more in action. It's worth noting that, by comparison to most crime films, there aren't a lot of on-screen chase scenes or big shootouts in Tarantino's pictures; everything that happens happens in quick bursts of gunfire or knife play that are just as quickly over. Tarantino prefers the excruciating buildup, and the grueling, bloody aftermath, too. He seems to be able to get good work out of actors, though this could be as much a matter of taste in casting as talent. In any case, Travolta seems more in control of his effects than he has since near the beginning of his career, in Saturday Night Fever and Blow Out. This very good actor has spent too many of the intervening years trying to be lovable, and succeeded only in making himself a joke. As Vincent, he relaxes, takes that phony twinkle out of his eye, and at once becomes casually sexy and funny. Jackson's Jules is also terrific, and Willis has probably never been better. Tarantino's real gift, however, is as a writer of dialogue, in a pop-hard-boiled style of his own invention. He's brilliant at setting up a thin pretext of plot as a line on which to string the chatter of career criminals--the philosophical debates and thoughtful ruminations of natural born killers.

Although his material probably wouldn't be as funny if Tarantino consciously considered himself a satirist, that's really what he is. His targets are his own angry-white-boy fantasies (drawn, of course, from the movies) of being a stone-cold tough guy.

His ability to manifest these fantasies without embarrassment, without rationalization, without an ethical context, without even adhering to the usual rules of dramatic structure--that's what makes his films, in spite of all their pointless bloodshed, seem so jolly. When Tarantino's characters start shooting, it's the movie-born demons of the director (and the audience) in which they're blowing holes.

Tarantino co-executive-produced Killing Zoe, a pop-nihilist caper movie written and directed by Roger Roberts Avary, who co-wrote Pulp Fiction's stories. Avary's film, which opens Friday at Tempe's Valley Art Theatre, is about a Bastille Day bank heist in Paris that turns into a hideous blood bath. Though it can claim a sounder, shapelier narrative structure than Pulp Fiction, and though it has a fine star performance by Eric Stoltz (who's also in Pulp Fiction), Killing Zoe isn't nearly as much fun. It's basically a Tarantino film with some pretensions to existential seriousness, and without a discernible whiff of humor--and without humor, rubbish about scum gets dull fast.

 
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